We are more comfortable than ever telling stories about intimate experiences in public, so why is miscarriage still such a taboo subject?

I recall my mother telling me a story, many years ago, about losing a baby to miscarriage.

She had experienced bleeding and been told by her doctor to go home, put her legs up and take two days’ bed rest. She had, of course, told my father about the doctor’s advice but being the 1960s there was minimal understanding of women’s issues, so she suffered alone and in silence.

These were pre-postmodern times, and boundaries between private selves and what could be disclosed and acknowledged in personal relationships and in public were non-negotiable. You just didn’t talk about those sorts of things.

Since the turn of the 21st century, a common characteristic of communication has been a trend toward greater self-disclosure in public. This is a consequence of both the internet and larger media culture, which has increasingly diminished the boundaries between personal and public lives and social norms around privacy, secrecy and intimacy.

In short, we are now more comfortable telling stories about intimate experiences in public.

The popularity of these conversations has been questioned by some social commentators (Lauren Berlant not least). One positive outcome of this development is the championing of stories around illness narratives. Health sociologists, for example, propose storytelling as a means for ill people to understand their vulnerability and to share relatable illness experiences with others. This not only validates a person’s expertise in their own experience, it can turn a negative anecdote about a medical journey or illness into positive dialogue about human frailty that can potentially help others.

The 10-part New Zealand Herald video documentary series Misconceptions: First Trimester Miscarriages provides a good example of this (as does the five-part RNZ podcast The Unthinkable).

Misconceptions tells the stories of six heterosexual couples from different cultural backgrounds who narrate their feelings of loss and silence around miscarrying first trimester pregnancies. Episode seven of the documentary covers the 12-week rule and the cultural taboo around not disclosing a pregnancy until it is ‘properly’ confirmed – historically by an ultrasound scan – at the beginning of the second trimester and after 12 weeks.

In addition to fostering a kind of public intimacy around the personal disclosure of the couple’s stories, what interests me about the documentary is the effects and emotions attached to the women’s first trimester pregnancies. Without explicitly doing so, the documentary makers show how the couple’s feelings about pregnancy loss have relatively little to do with beliefs about the moral status of the embryo. Instead, these feelings are related directly to the couple’s intention and desire to become parents. The emotional investments they attach to the pregnancies are thus separate from the politics around what an embryo, foetus or baby is.

As a sociologist engaged in research on assisted reproduction and social infertility, I have heard many women mention the silence around experiences of miscarriage. Half of the 20 single mothers by choice I have interviewed to date for a study on family formation, for instance, talked about miscarriage, with several noting more than one experience. Many of these interviewees remarked upon the invisibility of miscarriage as a topic in mainstream discussion. As one research participant said to me, “It’s the silence, it’s just a not discussing, not being able [or] allowed to grieve out in the open, and there’s some silence and mystery around this miscarriage and we should just suck it up and move on … my wish would be any miscarriage, at any stage, is treated as a miscarriage.”

Misconceptions aims to break this silence and make public the private stories of women and couples who experience first-trimester miscarriage. While the 12-week rule does not present a problem for some people, the documentary shows that for others, including those seeking fertility treatment who have a huge investment in their embryos, any loss can be significant and should be acknowledged. 

Not surprisingly, even though my mother had a miscarriage all those years ago, she doesn’t want to talk about it to this day. The memory is still raw. No doubt this is generational and has something to do with a sense of propriety around self-disclosure, but that does not mean sharing stories that question public discourse around first trimester miscarriage is disclosing too much about oneself.

Nor does it mean we can’t implement legislative change – e.g. the Holidays (Bereavement Leave for Miscarriage) Amendment Bill – and better healthcare practices to support people to deal with their grief and loss in this situation.   

Associate Professor Rhonda Shaw is a sociologist in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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